It’s the Age of the Brain !

By the time I started my PULSE assignment at the end of June, what was initially planned to become a European Year of the Brain in 2014 had morphed into a global Age of the Brain campaign, with Years of the Brain in Europe in 2014, North America in 2015 and Asia Pacific in 2016.  Clearly, not only GSK Finance is thinking big !

During my first few weeks I have written and agreed a project charter, drafted a project plan, met with a few patient organisations and brain related charities and I have even agreed my personal development objectives.  The highlight, however, was our visit to the CERN in Geneva, where we were given the opportunity of holding our first Age of the Brain (AoB) management meeting as well as offered an official, and very rare, tour of this amazing facility.

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (and now a global organisation), is one of the world’s largest and most respected centres for scientific research, a venue perfectly epitomising the extraordinary power of the human brain.  The first proposal for the World Wide Web was developed here by Tim Berners-Lee and it continues to position itself right at the cutting-edge of scientific discovery.  Its business is fundamental physics, defining the very building blocks of the universe and establishing how they work. The world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments are used at CERN to study the basic constituents of matter – the ‘fundamental particles’.

As expected, our heads were filled with amazement as we gazed at the scientists sharing with us the most intriguing and interesting facts.  Director-General Professor Rolf Heuer described how CERN was founded in 1954 in order to promote peace through science and international collaboration following WWII. He also described that CERN’s objective of excellent science leads to technological innovation which in turn will have an impact on society.   So for example, not only the world wide web, but also many of the diagnostic instruments currently used, such as MRI or PET scanners, are based on technology first developed at CERN.  Hence one of CERN’s fundamental challenges is how to align science and society more closely.  To this end, CERN invests a great deal of time and effort in attracting the interests of school children and challenging the perception that physics or science is ‘boring’.  This approach is just one area which offers significant opportunity for collaboration with the AoB project and the European Brain Council.  By embracing the wonders of science and the brain itself, many more great things can be achieved.

One of the elements at CERN which struck us was the genuine collaboration between the scientists globally through “memoranda of understanding”.  Whilst there is competition of the healthy sort which is so vital to success, there is also genuine understanding that without international collaboration many of the discoveries could not be achieved.  This also applies to the area of computing power, which we learned is so essential to most of the projects undertaken.  Grid computing has revolutionised the way scientists and others share and analyse data. This technology connects computers that are scattered over a wide geographic area, allowing their computing power to be shared.   In fact, the world wide web was invented at CERN for the use of scientists who needed it to share information and in the same way, maybe the Grid will one day be part of our daily lives (and you have read it here first !).  To give you an idea of the computing power required to carry out experiments these days, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) produces in the order of one million GB of data per second.  Thanks to sophisticated selection systems, only 0.00001% of these data are actually kept.  However, even after such a drastic reduction, 25 petabytes (25m GBs) need to be stored per year, the equivalent of 5.3 million DVD movies which would take around one thousand years to watch !

The Grid:

The final and most anticipated part of our visit was the opportunity to descend into the tunnels of the 27km long LHC, the world’s biggest scientific tool which is located between the Jura mountain range in France and the Swiss Border outside of Geneva.  After a safety briefing and the donning of hard hats we travelled 100m underground into the tunnels which house the activity determined to answer mankind’s most fundamental questions.   The LHC is a machine which accelerates two beams of particles in opposite directions to more than 99.9 per cent the speed of light.  Thousands of powerful superconducting magnets steer the proton beams around the huge ring and then focus them to less than the width of a human hair, ready to crash against each other.  By studying what happens when these particles collide, physicists have begun to decipher the very laws of nature.  Smashing the beams together creates showers of new particles for physicist to study.

The LHC tunnel:

One of the LHC’s detectors (“where matter meets matter”):

The excitement of the tour was further enhanced by media speculation that the Higgs boson particle, or ‘God’ particle, has indeed been found.  The Higgs boson particle is considered the key to understanding the universe.  Its job is to give the particles that make up atoms their mass. Finding evidence of this particle will be testament to half a century’s work of thousands of scientists.  In fact, shortly after our visit, it was announced in early July (http://press.web.cern.ch/press/PressReleases/Releases2012/PR17.12E.html) that scientists at CERN had gathered overwhelming evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson, but CERN did stop short of claiming official discovery of the Higgs boson even though many physicists conceded that the evidence was now incredibly compelling.  Formal confirmation of the discovery is expected within months although it could take further years for scientists to work out whether they have found the simplest kind of Higgs particle that theories predict, or part of a more complex picture: for example, one of a larger family of Higgs bosons. The discovery of more than one kind of Higgs particle would open the door to an entirely new realm of physics …..

As part of the tour we were given some materials which I have since digested. These were further cause for awe and I feel compelled to share some of the facts with you:

•    At full power trillions of protons race around the LHC accelerator ring 11,245 times a second travelling at 99.9999991% the speed of light.  Two beams of protons will each travel at a maximum energy of 7TeV (tera-electronvolt) corresponding to head-to-head collisions of 14 TeV. Altogether some 600 millions collisions will take place every second.

•    To avoid colliding with gas molecules inside the accelerator, the beams of particles travel in an ultra-high vacuum – a cavity as empty as interplanetary space. The internal pressure of the LHC is 10-13 atm, ten times less than the pressure on the Moon!

•    The LHC is a machine of extreme hot and cold. When two beams of lead ions collide, they will generate temperatures more than 100,000 times hotter than the heart of the Sun, concentrated within a minuscule space. By contrast, the ‘cryogenic distribution system’, which circulates superfluid helium around the accelerator ring, keeps the LHC at a super cool temperature of -271.3°C (1.9 K) – even colder than outer space!

•    To sample and record the results of up to 600 million proton collisions per second, physicists and engineers have built gargantuan devices that measure particles with micron precision. The LHC’s detectors have sophisticated electronic trigger systems that precisely measure the passage time of a particle to accuracies in the region of a few billionths of a second. The trigger system also registers the location of the particles to millionths of a metre. This incredibly quick and precise response is essential for ensuring that the particle recorded in successive layers of a detector is one and the same.

These facts hopefully give you an impression of the awe and excitement that the AoB team felt during the visit and they clearly demonstrate the power of the human brain.  The good news is that following our visit, CERN have agreed to become a partner of the Age of the Brain project and this brings me back to our campaign: Please watch the video and pledge your support at www.pledge.yearofthebrain.org/ and change the way we think about our brains forever.

If you are wondering why I am not blogging as ageofthebrain, the answer is that there is already someone out there blogging with this username, so it seems at least someone is agreeing with our campaign already …..

Finally, a little quiz:  Humans usually only use 10 percent of their brain. True or False ?  You will find the answer in my next blog.

P.S.  If 2014 will be the Year of the Brain in Europe, is 2012 the Year of the Rain ? Well, at least in Northern Europe it feels like it …..